Gulf war veterans link ailments to destruction of Iraqi bunker Battalion pinpoints chemical weapon exposure


WASHINGTON -- After years of Pentagon denials, a group of veterans of the Persian Gulf war is offering the first compelling evidence that U.S. troops were exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons. The veterans say that nerve gas and other chemical agents have begun to ravage their bodies.

The soldiers and former soldiers were members of the Army's 37th Engineer Battalion. Unlike thousands of other Americans who have complained that they suffer from the ailments collectively described as gulf war syndrome, the men of the 37th can pinpoint the time and place that they believe they were exposed to chemical weapons: 2: 05 p.m. March 4, 1991, when the battalion blew up 33 Iraqi bunkers in the southern Iraqi desert.

The Pentagon acknowledged this summer -- more than five years after the end of the war, more than four years after the United Nations made the first evidence public -- that one of the concrete bunkers probably contained shells containing sarin, a deadly nerve agent, and mustard gas, a blister agent that can burn flesh. The bunkers were destroyed to keep the Iraqis from rearming immediately after the war.

Defense Department officials say their initial review of the medical records of the battalion offers no evidence of an unusual pattern of health problems among these soldiers. While it concedes that chemical weapons were probably at the arsenal, the Pentagon has said that it still has no clinical evidence that the soldiers were exposed.

But the veterans of the 37th, which is based at Fort Bragg, N.C., tell a different story. Many say they are sick. In interviews with 37 of the nearly 150 battalion members who were reported in the vicinity of the arsenal at the time of the explosion, 27 said they have suffered serious health problems since the war.

Their ailments, they said, include mysterious infections and rashes, serious gastrointestinal problems, fierce headaches and constant fatigue. Many have been hospitalized for unexplained ailments; some have had surgery.

"We just want to know what's wrong with us," said Christian Tullius, a veteran of the 37th from Copperas Cove, Texas, who left the Army last month.

"We were paratroopers -- elite troops, in great shape -- and now we're all sick as dogs," said Tullius, 28, who has been operated on nine times for intestinal ailments since the war and has had much of the muscle wall around his stomach removed.

Medical experts have not determined a cause for the reports of gulf war illnesses and have disagreed over whether the syndrome in fact has a medical basis. More than 60,000 gulf war veterans have asked for special government health screenings to determine if they suffer from ailments related to the war.

An investigation of the incident at the Kamisiyah arsenal, including interviews with officials at the Pentagon and a review of classified Army reports on the explosion, has shown several things:

The Pentagon paid little, if any, attention to early reports that chemical agents might have been released at Kamisiyah, even though the U.N. investigators made the information public in at least three reports to the Security Council in 1992.

The Pentagon has said that according to battlefield reports, soldiers conducted an extensive inspection of the site for chemical weapons before the blast and that detectors found no chemical agents after the explosion. Some veterans said that both assertions were incorrect. They said chemical-weapon alarms went off shortly after the blast, leading many soldiers to don rubberized chemical-warfare suits immediately.

The battalion ran short of the chemical suits, and troops were encouraged not to unwrap new suits even when chemical-gas alarms went off. The alarms went off frequently during the war -- several times a week, with most dismissed as false alarms by commanders.

Even as the Defense Department has suggested that exposure to low levels of chemical weapons does not carry long-term health risks, Pentagon officials acknowledge that little is known about the long-term effects.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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